Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream UFC on ESPN+ live on your computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.
After over a year of lying dormant, the Ultimate Fighting Championship flyweight title will be on the line again on Saturday in Norfolk, Virginia. It feels like ages ago when Henry Cejudo last defended that championship against the now suspended T.J. Dillashaw. Cejudo finally relinquished his 125-pound title to focus on the bantamweight division. That opened up the opportunity for Joseph Benavidez and Deiveson Figueiredo in the UFC Fight Night 169 main event, where they will fight for the title that once looked like it might be dissolved altogether. It’s a nice reward for Benavidez and Figueiredo, two respected and highly skilled competitors who have kept on winning despite all the flyweight uncertainty. However, it’s difficult to figure who else benefits from the continuation of the men’s flyweight experiment.
Establishing a flyweight division was an uphill climb from the beginning for the UFC. Other expansions into divisions like lightweight, featherweight, women’s strawweight and women’s flyweight were buoyed by the fact that there were many top-notch fighters naturally suited for the weight classes. These were later weight classes to come along, but they are among the deepest in the sport. By contrast, the depth chart of men who make weight at 125 pounds is much smaller. As such, the top mix of the flyweight division was largely comprised of former bantamweights who had been doing perfectly fine at 135 pounds.
In spite of this, the UFC made a good-faith effort to try to build the men’s flyweight division. It put title fights on Fox, marketed Demetrious Johnson as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport and spent nearly eight years trying to get the division going. Nothing took. It wasn’t simply that the title fights never drew, although they didn’t. It was that from top to bottom the division with the highest decision rate just wasn’t creating any stars or interest.
The UFC saw the writing on the wall and started cutting flyweights in what appeared to be the beginning of the end for the division. It looked like the best flyweights would bolster the bantamweight division, and the UFC would move on from a failed experiment. This hollowed out the division even further, but then, for some reason, the UFC reversed course. As a result, flyweight is the only UFC division with rankings where there isn’t even a full slate of 15 ranked fighters. Beyond the lack of depth, the flyweight division is notable now for being the only such division that doesn’t clearly feature the best fighters in the world in the weight class. There’s a strong argument to be made that the three best flyweight fighters in the world are Henry Cejudo, Demetrious Johnson and Kyoji Horiguchi.
Cejudo left for the bantamweight division simply because that’s where all the most marketable fights were. Johnson left for One Championship, where he is 3-0 at flyweight. He would almost certainly be favored against anyone in the UFC’s current flyweight division. Horiguchi went 7-1 in the UFC at flyweight—his only loss was to Johnson—and has looked even more dominant since leaving, moving to bantamweight like Cejudo because that’s where the matchups were. The UFC’s flyweight division is defined in large part by key fighters leaving for greener pastures.
It’s telling that as Benavidez and Figueiredo fight for the title, the event is not on ESPN or pay-per-view but on ESPN+. Even there, it’s not as if it’s being promoted as any more important than your standard ESPN+ card. It doesn’t feel as if the UFC is even making much of an effort to sell the importance of the title, which makes one wonder why it has bothered to bring it back in the first place.
One might ask what the harm is in continuing with this division, even if it is in such a weakened state. The answer to that is the sport thrives when its titles and champions matter. Titles provide the structure to the sport, and fan excitement about title fights drives interest in all the other fights, as well. The stronger the titles are, the easier it is to create stars and keep fans engaged. The weaker the titles, the more fans will just gravitate towards the biggest stars and ignore everything else.
It’s good for the health of the sport not to be like boxing, where a cast of random characters walk around carrying titles that mean nothing and make the best fighters’ titles seem less important by association. The UFC has no obligation to sanction championships at every conceivable weight class. Combine that consideration with the fact that so few fighters are left in the division while fans have made it clear they aren’t interested in it, and the UFC should have just moved on. The best flyweights can just fight at bantamweight; Benavidez himself was an elite bantamweight before moving down, and Cejudo has thrived at 135 pounds, as well. The UFC’s first go at flyweight didn’t work out well and there’s little reason to believe this reboot will do any better.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.